Overcoming Customer Experience Program Stress Points

Along with my colleagues at Customer Innovations, I’ve had the opportunity to help structure and manage major customer experience initiatives for a wide range of companies.    In the course of doing so, we’ve run into every imaginable roadblock and gone down our fair share of unproductive “rat holes.”   About a year ago, the Customer Innovations leadership team took a step back and summarized the stress points that organizations face as they try to build and maintain momentum with their customer experience programs.   Here’s what we came up with:

Customer Experience Program Stress Points

Customer Experience Program Stress Points

These stress points create confusion, slow or stall progress, and often partially, if not totally, derail the effort.   We’ve found that these stress points occur predictably with certain roles (e.g., the project team, executive stakeholders, support functions, etc…) and at certain points in the lifecycle of the effort.   Although they occur predictably, they tend to catch most organizations by surprise.   The key to building and maintaining progress is to know how to anticipate these stress points and manage them in advance.

Here are just a couple of the predictable stress points and what we’ve found is important to proactively address them:

  • Moving Beyond Platitudes (Executive Sponsors). Many executives have strong rhetoric around customer-focus and the need to deliver a compelling customer experience.  Very rarely do they understand how to move the organization beyond this rhetoric into action.  The experience that customers have with the business is typically the product of very deeply entrenched structural, cultural, and behavioral “legacy effects.”   Shifting the customer experience in any noticeable and profitable way involves knowing how to shift this deeply entrenched organizational behavior.  Addressing this stress point requires having a comprehensive, well-tested roadmap that allows Executive Sponsors to know how to create the conditions for success with a program that follows through on the rhetoric.  This roadmap must take into account surfacing and addressing the legacy effects that get in the way.  (see:  Centers of Gravity: Levers for Shifting the Customer ExperienceHow Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior, and Integrating Customer and Employee Experiences)
  • Knowing Where to Start (Project Leadership and Support Functions). Improving the experience customers have with the organization seems all encompassing.  There are usually a very wide range of processes, functions, technology, and people that touch the customer.  Most organizations have multiple lines of business, each with multiple types of customers, and often many different channels or intermediaries that play a role.  Where do you start?  Do you try to work top-down on the things that are common across all of these dimensions or do you try to work bottom-up by focusing on individual elements of what the organization does to influence the experience?   The answer is neither… and both.  We’ve found that an iterative top-down / bottom-up process works best.  Starting with top-down principles and a unifying customer experience specification (see:  Customer Experience Specification) and then refining the principles and specification in bottom-up detailed design and pilots with individual lines of business or experience components.
  • The Experience Mapping Swamp (Project Team and Support Functions). Touch-point mapping… the analysis of how customers experience what the company does at each of the points of interaction… is the central approach used in most customer experience initiatives.    It’s very rational that the organization would want to know how it’s doing at those points of interaction.  The problem is that it’s close to useless for figuring what to do to significantly improve the experience.  In most cases, addressing the issues that get surfaced in touch point mapping exercises creates no more than “better sameness.”  (see:  Whose Experience is it Anyway? and The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen At Your Touchpoints!)   The fact is, the customers experience doesn’t just happen at an organization’s touchpoints and, as a result, it’s really impossible to know how to meaningfully improve that experience unless you understand what’s happening at the non-touch-points.   The most effective tool for proactively addressing this stress point is making sure that the effort starts with an “experiencer-centric” definition of the experience.   (See Experience Miner: Creating Profitable, Evocative Experiences)

There are many other stress points:   Facing the ugly truth in “Coming to Terms with the Truth About Today“, overcoming the tendency to define an “Ideal Experience We Can’t Implement,”  having the guts to do drive towards “Differentiation vs. Better Sameness,” while avoiding “Painting the Surface vs. Changing the Core,”  and overcoming the “Surfacing Unwritten Rule Barriers” that make it impossible for the organization and it’s intermediaries to behave in a way that creates the desired experience, etc…  You get the picture.  We’ve developed effective strategies for addressing each of these stress points.   I’m happy to provide additional information…. just shoot me a message.

Cheers, Frank

Note:  Our stress point framework was inspired by the “Reengineering Stress Point” framework originally created by brilliant consultant,  Glenn Mangurian, while he was at CSC Index in the mid-90s’

Another note:  If you found this post interesting, you might also find the following posts helpful:

How Employee Experiences Drive Organizational Behavior

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the key to a consistent and differentiated customer experience is a set of deliberately designed employee experiences.  The experience that customers have with most businesses is the product of very complex organizational behavior.  The experience that employees have within the organization is the driver of that behavior.  In addition, the nature of employee experiences has a profound impact on the organizational agility required to make improvements to the customer experience.  This post will explore the connection between employee experience and organizational behavior.  But, first things first…

What is an employee experience?

I believe the most productive way to define “employee experience” is as something that resides with the employee rather than being a characteristic of the organization.  Its how the employee “experiences” things rather than what the organization does that is most important.

The working definition of employee experience we’ve been using is as follows:

The employee experience is how employees react rationally and emotionally… to the how their organizational and external environments… enable them to achieve goals and satisfy needs that are important to them.

I consider this a working definition since I’m sure we’ll end up tweaking it as we continue to learn.  However, there are three things that have made this definition productive in our employee experience design work:

  1. The context for an individual’s experience starts with what they are trying to accomplish; what’s important to them.  We’ve found that different employees tend to have significantly different “experiences” of the same set of organizational conditions dependent on their goals and needs.  As a result, what an organization does to create effective employee experiences cannot be “one size fits all.”
  2. An employee’s experience is influenced not only by what happens within the organizational environment but also by external factors like the economy, the job market, world events, etc…  Although these factors are outside of the control of leaders within the organization, they cannot be ignored because they have a significant effect on employee’s moods, priorities, and behavior.
  3. In addition to the individual goals described above, employees have rational and emotional reactions that are driven by an underlying set of beliefs and temperaments which can be characterized by different “employee personae.”  For example, BSG Concours’ research has shown that an employee that can be described as a “self empowered innovator” will have a fundamentally different experience of the same situation than an employee that can be described as a “fair and square traditionalist.”

In the end, all of this becomes strategically relevant when employees’ rational and emotional reactions produce behavior that either enables or gets in the way of the organization working together to deliver a customer experience that allows them to win in the marketplace.  Organizational behavior generated by employee experiences can be described at two levels:  Operating State and Unwritten Rules.

Employee Experience and the Operating State of the Organization

Operating State is a way of diagnosing and describing how people work together.  It has a profound impact on the agility that any workgroup or organization has in the face of changing business needs.  Based on work done with CSC Index and DiBianca Berkman, Operating State describes how people relate around four things:  Power, Identity, Contention, and Learning.  As you read these, I’m sure they’ll resonate with experiences you’ve had in organizations that you’ve been part of.

  • Power. Do people have the power to accomplish what is important to the organization and to themselves? The state of power within any organization can range from Possibility to Resignation.
    • Possibility. At one end of the spectrum, some organizations seem to be unstoppable. Employees have experience which encourage them to be ambitious, resourceful, to take risks, and to accept accountability.
    • Resignation. On the other hand, many organization seem be in stuck. Employees experience the organization as an immovable object. As a result, they are can be highly frustrated, easily stopped, and, as a result, avoid risks and accountability.
  • Contention. How do people deal with disagreement or misalignment? In some ways, this is the most critical element of how people work together in a changing business world. Contention within an organization can range from Safety and Resolution to Fear and Suppression.
    • Safety and Resolution. Ideally the experience that employees have within the organization encourages them to surface and address differences of opinion ; to safely challenge the status quo or prevailing thinking. The experience reinforces “straight talk” rather than submerged disagreement.
    • Fear and Suppression. Alternatively, many organizations have a hard time with conflict. People avoid saying “what’s so” for fear of being seen as “not on board” or “not a team player.” Many times there are subtle “kill the messenger” reactions that lead to distrust and issues that become undiscussable.
  • Identity. Do people identify with the mission and the commitment of the organization as a whole or do they identify more narrowly with their function or department? The state of identity within an organization can range between connectedness to separateness.
    • Connectedness. When an organization is operating from the state of connectedness, holistic thinking prevails. People work hard to optimize the performance of the organization as a whole rather than just the performance of their function. As a result, it’s possible for the organization to take coordinated action and be responsible for cross-functional and cross-divisional objectives.
    • Separateness. When an organization is operating from a position of separateness, narrow thinking prevails. Employees primarily consider the requirements for success within their function or role. This naturally leads to sub-optimal overall performance. People take independent action that is in many cases misaligned and, as a result, there can be a lot of finger-pointing.
  • Learning. Learning is the way an organization maintains its differentiation. In order to move forward, organizations must be open to learning about the changing needs of their customers, their real strengths and weaknesses versus competitors, and the ways the organization must change in order to continually improve the experience for customers. Commoditization is a by-product of the lack of learning. Learning within organizations can range from Inquisitiveness and Receptivity to Arrogance and Defensiveness.
    • Inquisitiveness and Receptiveness.  Ideally the employee experience reinforces an environment in which people are open to new ideas, look for new possibilities, challenge existing mental models, try new things and learn from their failures.
    • Arrogance and Defensiveness. However, in many organizations, people have a hard time safely challenging the existing thinking. Many times employees trust and follow the “authoritative view” of their superiors. In addition, some organizations reinforce critical thinking that leads employees to “look for the fatal flaw” in the ideas of their colleagues. People are distrustful of ideas that come from outside their group or organization. In many situations its hard for the organization to learn from failures because they have a hard time admitting failure.

As you can probably, tell each of these interconnected components of an organization’s Operating State can have a profound impact on the organizations’ ability to navigate change and improve the quality of the experience customers have.  These Operating State components are strongly reinforced by the experience employees have within the organization.  Based on our work with clients to shift these conditions, it’s first necessary to understand how the employee experience reinforces these components before you can develop meaningful and well-directed interventions.

Employee Experience and the Unwritten Rules that Drive Behavior

Regardless of the formalized policies, processes, and procedures, the actually behavior of people within an organization tends to be driven by a set of unwritten rules that, to employees, seem like the sensible ways to behave.  There are many Unwritten Rules that result from and reinforce the Operating State components described above.  For example, common unwritten rules might include:  “Don’t admit you’ve made a mistake,” “Regardless of the overall mission of the organization, you need to satisfy your boss,” “Don’t disagree with your superiors in public,” “If you question a major program, you won’t be seen as a team player,” etc…The unwritten rules within any organization are unique and have a lot to do with long legacy effects; how the organization has dealt with change in the past and what strategies have worked.

These Unwritten Rules are reinforced by the existing set of employee experiences and have a significant impact on the organizations’ ability to deliver a highly engaging and differentiated customer experience.  As I covered in the post, Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?,  Unwritten Rules are one of the primary reasons why customer experience efforts often don’t produce the desired results.

Every company has Unwritten Rules that are just inconsistent with delivering the kind of customer experience they would intend to deliver.  This ranges from Unwritten Rules like, “The stars are out getting new customers, not serving the existing customers,” “We need to compete against other divisions for the customers’ attention,” “We talk about customers but ultimately you get rewarded for making your numbers,” etc…  The list is potentially endless.

Ultimately, the experience customers have with your business is the product of organizational behavior… that organizational behavior is a product of the Unwritten Rules and Operating State of the organization…. the Unwritten Rules and Operating State are reinforced by the experience that employees are having.

As a result, designing meaningful and relevant improvements in the experience involves the following steps:

  1. Describing the experience you intend to deliver to customers
  2. Identifying the organizational and individual behaviors required to generate that experience
  3. Identifying what current Unwritten Rules and Operating State components must change in order to produce those behaviors
  4. Determining how these Unwritten Rules and Operating State components are reinforced by the employee experience
  5. Designing specific employee experience interventions that address those barriers.

In practice, employee experience interventions can include changing:  target hiring profiles, recruiting practices, new employee incorporation, mentoring, performance management, measurements and rewards, communications, management expectations, executive alignment, etc…  While many of these are things are done today, this more holistic perspective allows you design these interventions in a way that is much more directed and effective.

For a complementary perspective on employee experience, I would encourage you to check out one of my colleagues, Tammy Erickson’s, interesting blog post:  http://www.bsgalliance.com/convs/show/1398-intensifying-your-firm-s-signature-experience

Integrating Customer and Employee Experiences

A key to delivering clearly differentiated and effective customer experiences is the holistic and deliberate design of the employee experiences that “generate” those customer experiences.

My colleagues and I have spent the last 25 years helping leading organizations design and deliver more innovative and differentiated customer experiences.  Over this time, we’ve developed a deep respect for how difficult it is to actually shift the behavior of the organization in a way that actually produces a different and noticeably better experience.  In fact, our greatest learning over the past decade is probably that the key to getting the customer experience working is to make very deliberate and targeted improvements in the employee experience.

This has little or nothing to do with making employees more satisfied or “engaged.”  We’ve seen many situations where more highly engaged employees just deliver a poor experience more enthusiastically.  I’ve already had a lot to say about that in A Break in the Service Profit Chain:  Why Increases in Employee Engagement Don’t Improve the Customer Experience.

If I were to summarize the key lessons we’ve learned about the integration of customer and employee experience it would include the following:

  • The experience customers’ have with any organization is the product of behavior that emerges from a complex organizational system.
  • Every organization is strongly predisposed to deliver the current customer experience based on deeply entrenched legacy effects, beliefs, values, and unwritten rules.  These legacy effects are reinforced by employee experiences at every level of the organization.
  • Most customer experience efforts significantly underestimate the difficulty of actually shifting these legacy effects.  In some cases, organizations create a vision for the desired customer experience that is fundamentally at odds with the character and the culture of the organization.  As a result, most initiatives fail to produce a noticeable shift in the customers’ actual experience.  (See:  Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?)
  • Any effort to fundamentally improve the customer experience must first decode how and why the organizational system produces the current experience.  This understanding allows executives to identify what changes are feasible and what specific interventions are necessary.  Without this understanding, efforts to change the behavior of that system are likely to be naïve.
  • Delivering a substantially different customer experience requires a holistic, end-to-end perspective on the employee experience.  Within that holistic perspective, highly targeted employee experience interventions must be designed to address any “unwritten rules” that produce behavior inconsistent with the intended customer experience.
  • By creating a strong linkage between the customer experience required to drive profitable growth and the employee experiences required to generate this customer experience, it becomes possible to create an economic model of the employee experience.  This economic model can then be used to justify and prioritize investments in the employee experience.

BSG Concours is in the midst of a multi-client research project titled “Employee Expeiences and Business Results” that will extend our thinking about how leveraging the link between employee and customer experiences.  I’ll have a chance to expand on this in future posts.

Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail?

Most organizations have woken up to the fact that the quality of their customers’ experience is a primary driver of organic growth.  In fact, it’s hard to find an organization today that isn’t doing some sort work on the customer experience.  Unfortunately, despite the importance of these initiatives,  most of them will fail to produce any competitively relevant benefits.  Why is that?

If you take a step back, the majority of customer experience initiatives roughly follow this sequence of steps: 

  1. Assess the current experience
  2. Conduct customer research to identify unmet needs (optional),
  3. Describe the intended customer experience
  4. Design operating model changes required to deliver that experience
  5. Implement those operating model changes

Although it seems like a logical enough plan of action, our experience has shown that this sequence of steps is also totally naive!

It may be stating the obvious but…  the experience customers have with your organization is the product of highly complex organizational behavior.  This organizational behavior emerges from the individual behaviors of executive leaders, middle managers, and front-line employees.  We’ve observed that most customer experience initiatives significantly underestimate the difficulty of actually shifting this organizational behavior.   This is due largely to the fact that organizational behavior emerges from a complex web of individual behaviors that are influenced by the character, priorities, histories, and assumptions of those individuals.

Whether you like it or not, your organization is predisposed to deliver the experience your customers’ are having today.  We call this the “default experience.”   This default experience is the result of deeply entrenched beliefs, values, and unwritten rules that drive the real behavior of your organization. 

In every organization we’ve talked to and worked with, there are many unwritten rules that are inconsistent with delivering the experience those organizations would really like their customers to have.   These unwritten rules are unique to each organization, driven by extensive legacy effects, and reinforced by the existing employee experience.  Many of these unwritten rules typically center around things like:  what it takes to be successful in the organization; the importance of financial vs. non-financial metrics; the importance of internal vs. external stakeholders (e.g., my boss vs. the customer); the importance of acquiring new customers vs. caring for existing customers; the ability to admit mistakes; the ease of cross-functional collaboration, etc…

After working with dozens of organizations, the central lesson we’ve learned is: 

Any effort to change the customers’ experience must first decode how the existing organizational system creates the existing, “default” experience.

Understanding how the organizational system creates the existing experience involves: 

  1. Surfacing the motivators (what’s important?), enablers (who’s important?), triggers (how do people get what they want?), and the resulting unwritten rules within each relevant pocket of the organization
  2. Determining how those unwritten rules are either consistent or inconsistent with the desired customer experience
  3. Understanding how the current employee experiences reinforces these unwritten rules, particularly the unwritten rules inconsistent with the desired experience
  4. Designing specific employee experience interventions that deliberately address unwritten rules that are barriers to the desired customer experience

There are very significant implications of this lesson.  For example, many organizations do wonderfully creative work to identify what’s important to their customers and develop a compelling vision or design for a better experience…  that are fundamentally out of character with what the organization is capable of delivering. 

For example, we worked with a leading business-to-business services organization that had the vision to create “the most collaborative client experience.”  Unfortunately, the organization’s DNA made it exceptionally difficult for them to even collaborate with each other… much less collaborate effectively with their clients.

Over the past several years, we have collaborated with Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan  on the development of a rigorous approach to understanding and shifting organizational behavior behind the customer experience.  Dr. Scott-Morgan is the authority on understanding the unwritten rules of organizations and is the founder of the emerging field of Cryptonomics, which studies the emergent behavior of complex organizational systems.

If you are interested in more information feel free to check out our “Getting the Employee Experience Right“podcast interview with with Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan.